WASHINGTON – Nature lovers and eco-tourists might be damaging wildlife irreversibly even if they restrict their activities to tiptoeing discreetly through the undergrowth, a study by experts warned.
There has been a “dramatic, fivefold reductions in the native species” like bobcats and coyotes, said Adina Merenlender, University of California (Berkeley) who conducted the study with Sarah Reed of San Francisco-based Wilderness Society.
In 2004, eco-tourism outpaced the tourist industry threefold. One in five tourists now go on eco-holidays, which has been found to impact a range of species, from dolphins and dingoes to penguins and polar bears, according to a New Scientist report.
The dilemma is that revenue from eco-tourism provides one of the best incentives for local communities to protect endangered animals instead of hunting them.
Wildlife management specialist Philip Seddon, from the University of Otago in New Zealand, said the finding that such apparently harmless activities may alter the make-up of wildlife communities contradicts the objective of ecotourism – to minimise impact and maximise benefits.
Merenlender and Reed concentrated on 14 protected zones of oak woodland in northern California. At each site they collected faeces left by the target species along a series of 500-metre sampling paths.
They then compared the quantity found in areas out of bounds to humans with that found along sampling paths in similar “paired” areas nearby where access was allowed.
When people were banned from an area, native species such as bobcats, coyotes and grey foxes thrived and were typically five times as abundant as in more heavily trafficked areas. Likewise, faeces of domestic animals, particularly dogs, were only found in the areas visited by humans.
It is well known that human activity can alarm animals, but Merenlender said this is the first time a consistent effect has been demonstrated across entire communities. “We see it over the whole park, not just a single trail.”
This should not, however, be taken to mean that low-key eco-tourism is always harmful, said David Sheppard, head of the programme on protected areas run by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
“It’s hard to make generalisations. It can depend heavily on species, as some are more affected by recreation than others,” he said.
Large predators might be unusually sensitive to human activity because people hunt them. “These animals have high intelligence, and those that are cautious survive,” said Paul Eagles, eco-tourism expert at the University of Waterloo, Canada, who chairs the tourism task force of the IUCN’s World Commission on Protected Areas. The team reported its findings in Conservation Letters.